Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital and a tourist hot spot to boot. There is a staggering line-up of 1600 traditional Kyoto temples to be seen. It is difficult to comprehend that many temples in the one city.
When viewing temples in Kyoto we like to spend a day or half day (depending on your schedule) in a specific temple district before moving on.
Western Kyoto is home to many temples but we chose to visit three with very different personas – Peaceful Ninnaji, Contemplative Ryoanji and Kinkakuji – Kyoto’s golden temple. Variety is the spice of life and what makes this a great temple viewing district. Plus we get to ride the Randen Line.
Ji is the Japanese word for temple, but it’s common for both Ji and Temple to be written, for example Ninnaji Temple – which reads as Ninna Temple Temple. Crazy, but there you have it.
Ninnaji Temple Kyoto
This temple’s huge front Nioman gate looms into view shortly after leaving the tram station. The street is only about 120 metres long, so it’s best to snap a photo while the gate still fits in frame.
NINNAJI is famous for it’s smallish, late blooming Omuro cherry trees. It is the head temple of the Omuro school of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. Inside the Nioman Front Gate on the left, is the Goten building. Built as an imperial palace, it is a quiet timber oasis with it’s own zen rock garden, pool and manicured garden. I love this temple. The timber floors, the smell of tatami matting, the peaceful verandahs and garden with the tantalising pagoda backdrop. Ninnaji was my first Kyoto temple and it is special.
The pink Chumon Gate is smaller than the huge outer gate and leads to the rear half of this very spacious complex. I’m sure half the population could visit at once, which I’m sure they do at Cherry Blossom time. The oldest buildings date back to the 1600’s and include both gates, the five-storied Pagoda, Main Hall and Kannon Hall.
It is possible to have a KYOTO TEMPLE STAY at Ninnaji and attend morning service with the Monks in the Kondo building – the interior of which is not usually open to the public.
This experience is top of my new Kyoto wish list. The overnight fee of 11,000 yen per person includes the Goten.
Open 9 am to 5 pm. Goten Admittance 500 yen. The rest of the complex is free except for Cherry Blossom Season (600 yen).
Visit in Mid April to view the late flowering cherry trees and read more about our visit to Ninnaji HERE.
Ryoanji Temple Kyoto
An aristocrat’s villa from the Heian Period, Ryoanji became a Zen temple in 1450. It belongs to the Rinzai sect whose head temple is nearby. The zen garden has 15 rocks placed around on patches of Moss on a raked gravel base. The mind-trick is that no matter where you are positioned only 14 of the 15 rocks can ever be seen at once.
The viewing platform is actually the Hojo or former head priest’s residence (open to public) and the entrance is via the former temple kitchen.
The zen garden viewing area is small and when shared with a group of school kids, it is not at all zen-like. If the rock garden is hectic, wander around the complex and enjoy the park and pond instead.
To appreciate the zen rock garden as it is meant to be, arrive at opening time. But don’t despair if this is not possible, because the total area of gardens is 120 acres and they are the real star of Ryoanji.
Ryoanji is a 10 minute walk east of Ninnaji and a 20 minute walk west of Kinkakuji.
The Ryoanji Enlightenment Zen Garden.
Kinkakuji Golden Temple Kyoto
Kinkakuji is a timber Zen Buddhist Temple and one of the famous Kyoto temples. The original 14th Century temple was burnt to the ground during the Onin war (1467–1477) and then again by a novice monk in 1950 with the re-built version opening in 1955. The novice was mentally unstable and the whole story is very sad. He tried to commit suicide afterward but was saved, while his shamed mother succeeded in her attempt. The book “Temple of Golden Pavilion” by Yukio Mishima tells the story. Most but not all of the treasures within were saved.
The temple’s top two floors are coated externally in gold leaf, creating a shimmering golden reflection in the temple pond at the front.
Open 9 am to 5 pm. Admission 400 Yen.
Read more about our trip to Kinkakuji – The Golden Temple – HERE.
More Temples and Shrines on the Randen Line.
More Arashiyama Line Temples
Koryuji Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This temple is famous for it’s wooden statue of the “future Buddha”.
Rokuoin Temple. Come to this Zen temple for Autumn Coloured maple leaves.
Tenryuji Temple Arashiyama Kyoto.
More Kitano Line Temples
Myoshinji Temple Complex is huge with 40 sub-temples, most not open to the public but good for a wander. Four are open all-year round: Taizo-in, Shunko-in, Daishin-in and Keishun-in. (Kitano Line)
Tojiin Temple has a striking painting of the Buddhist saint Daruma and a lovely garden. (Kitano Line)
Hirano Shrine is visited for it’s gardens and for it’s 1000 year old cherry blossom festival. (Kitano Line)
Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is notable for it’s plum blossom orchard. (Kitano Line)
The Randen Line
Kyoto people love their Randen. This tram ride is a commute, but more importantly it is a link with tradition.
Once, the whole of Kyoto was served by trams but now there are just the two Randen routes. It’s one of those classic Kyoto things to do.
The two routes lead through scenic areas making the trip well worth the effort. It’s possible to spend a couple of days hopping on and off and experiencing far more than just temples. We want to return and try something different. You can read about the possibilities HERE.
Built in 1910, the box-like trams are painted a jaunty purple and wouldn’t look out of place in a Thomas the Tank Engine episode.
The starting point for Randen is Shijo-Omiya Station.
Hankyu Line connects the City Centre with Shijo-Omiya Station. We joined the Hankyu Line at Karawamachi Station, exiting at Hankyu-Omiya. It is also possible to catch a No. 26, 28 or 206 City Bus from Kyoto Station to Hankyu-Omiya Station. Buses are slightly cheaper but always take longer and they can and do get grid-locked.
Exit Hankyu Omiya station and cross above-ground to Shijo-Omiya station (A1 on the Randen Arashiyama Line) and purchase tickets.
If the station of entry is unmanned, it is possible to pay on exiting the tram.
There are two interconnected routes on the Randen Line.
The Arashiyama Line runs east –west from Shijo-Omiya Station to Keifuku Arashiyama Station.
Arashiyama is a scenic Kyoto district famous for HOZUGAWA RIVER AND TOGETSUKYO BRIDGE, Tenryuji Temple, the BAMBOO FOREST and Arashiyama Monkey Park. Visit Arashiyama separately as it really deserves a whole day to itself.
To get to our three Kyoto temples in Western Kyoto, take any tram on the Arashiyama Line and then transfer to the Kitano Line.
Change from the Arashiyama Line to the Kitano Line at Katabiranotsuji (A9) (B1).
The route runs north to Kitano-Hakubaicho Station. The line travels through a tunnel of cherry trees and during Cherry Blossom Season the train slows down to give everyone a good view.
Omuro-Ninnaji Station (B5)
Exit here for Ninnaji, Ryoanji (B7) and Kinkakuji the Golden Temple.
Ryoanji Temple (B7), whose famous zen rock garden draws huge crowds.
Kinkakuji Temple, the shining golden temple.
It is possible to exit the tram at Ryoanji Station (B7) for Ryoanji Temple but we chose to leave at Ninnaji Station (B5) and walk to Ryoanji and Kinkakuji temples in that order.
Where to base yourself in Kyoto
We did look at accommodation in Western Kyoto, but it was Autumn Season and nowhere had a two week block of accommodation available. Luckily we found a newly opened Airbnb Share House in Southern Higashiyama with a room to spare and we grabbed it.
I recommend Southern Higashiyama as a Kyoto base. It is an important sight-seeing district where local people stroll in traditional dress, visiting their beloved traditional lanes and Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most celebrated temples in all of Japan. We often found ourselves sipping coffee at our neighbourhood cafe, surrounded by beautiful kimono clad, powder-faced women sporting elaborate traditional hairstyles.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into traditional Kyoto. Which is your favourite Kyoto temple?
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